Friday, June 3, 2016

Speaking Truth to Power

I have been listening to an interesting podcast on CBC Radio’s ‘Ideas’ show. In it, an Indian journalist, Palagummi Sainath gives a speech at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The podcast consists of a recording of  his speech with a studio interview of Sainath by the show’s host, Paul Kennedy,  interpolated.  

But I will give a synopsis. Primarily he is saying that journalism is owned by major corporate interests and its reporting and publishing now reflects those interests. Journalism, he implies functions as public relations for the powerful. He notes further that today  there are more PR people than official journalists, even as journalists mostly themselves function in a PR mode. I would add journalism also functions as  public relations for the powerful in government - not necessarily politicians as politicians are only temporary placeholders, the front men and women for true power. 

Sainath notes that the biggest story of our generation - the degree to which the government in every democratic country has its own citizens under surveillance - was broken by figures such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. These two men are not journalists and these two men are paying a price for challenging power. 

My second and related link is to an article on the state of research and science into fat in our diet. On the face of it, there is no obvious connection between these two disparate news items (and they are properly speaking ‘news’). 

What this author, Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of medicine says in summary, is that science into the impact of saturated and unsaturated fats on human health has suffered from poor reporting. That is, even in science (and in this case, medical science), some good research findings get published and some do not. Those that do not get published go against the prevailing wisdom of medical science at any one time. This, to anyone who understands the proper nature of scholarship in any discipline, is a violation of that proper nature. Science, we are told by the leading popularizers of this methodology (science is a method, not a thing), must be objective and neutral and led by the facts. 

Yet, this scientist is troubled that it seems not to be so in his field of study - that some kind of herd instinct is at play where even those who ran good blind or double blind studies doubt their own evidence because it runs off in a different direction than the herd. He looks specifically at a major study done over several years spanning the late 60s and early 70s that was not published. Dr. Carroll wonders if the researchers did not try to publish because they doubted their results, not because their methodology was flawed, but because their results did not match the prevailing wisdom. Or was it not published because medical scientific journals would not accept it for that same reason.

Here you see the link between the ideas presented in the podcast on journalism and its relationship to power, and scientific journalism and its relationship to power in the scientific community. 

One of the foundational strengths of western civilization is its ability to go in new and surprising directions - to innovate, to think outside the box, BUT to do so with intellectual rigour. Apart from the various moral and ethical collapses of our society today, I would say that the underlying problem I see in both these thought pieces (what an awkward phrase, but what else can I call the two?), the underlying problem is our abandonment of innovative and honest thought, subjected to intellectual rigour and its concomitant captivity by the powerful. 

There are those who sense, if not see, the problem. The Open Media group of young people here in Canada, along with the law professor Michael Geist at the University of Ottawa see this lurking in the trade deal, the TPP. Who benefits here?  A free internet and its unleashing of free ideas is damaged and perhaps killed by specific terms in the agreement. These terms keep the internet captive to large corporations, facilitated by ‘trade’ deals negotiated among governments. The PR journalists tell us that the deal is about gaining access for our products to large markets, while in sotto voce trying not to mention that our market is also opened to the inflow of products from more powerful economies. No one looks at the larger picture, or if they do, they keep quiet. Who benefits?

Many years ago Canada entered into a trade deal with the United States - one which Donald Trump wants to end - but this deal brought no benefits whatsoever to the vast majority of Canadians. Indeed it can be argued we lost heavily, and if ordinary Americans as Trump claims, also lost, who won?  I won’t lead you any further along this line of thought, you can see the cheese at the end of the maze already I think.  

The same outcome will likely come from the TPP - benefits to already massively large corporations and to their facilitators in government, and no benefit to the majority of the population and quite possibly a worsening of our situation. And don’t let the propaganda from our journalistic elite fool you - times are worse now than only short decades ago. Mind you, I base this prediction only on the existing outcome of the North American Free Trade agreement - maybe the TPP is different. Maybe. 

One last point of hope here. I note that Sainath’s speech is at a Christian university, one that has a history of speaking truth to power. You might say that the Catholic church is hardly democratic, but in terms of power bases in the world today, it is one of the few alternate sources of power equal to corporations or government that often opposes their agenda. You can see the same in Islam - the Arab Spring was an uprising of Muslim youth against naked power. Buddhism presents an alternative lifestyle to the pursuit of material wealth. Without belabouring this point further, religion, whether organized and institutional, or as a grass roots movement usually speaks against power, except where it is corrupted and taken in as part of that power. Secondly, the article by Aaron Carroll  is published in the New York Times. This indicates the possibility that free thought may be down, but is not out.

Free ideas are anathema to power. As an historian I can say this with rather more certitude than is normal for a cautious scholar. Now, perhaps the analyses of the journalist Palagummi Sainath, and the physician Dr. Carroll, and my summary of their thoughts, are wrong. 

But what is definitely wrong and is occurring, is the growing intolerance of alternative opinions in the western world. We expect that of Russia or China, but not in free, functioning democracies. And, alas, we are all complicit in this. Social media are replete with people shouting opinions they have not thought through, and bullying anyone who disagrees by using violent language empty of evidence. 

Who knows how this will turn out? My usual cop out is to state that I am an historian and have enough trouble analysing the past, without attempting to understand the future. Yet, the path we, as a civilization are following now can be seen as well trod and clear already in the past. It is up to us to move this path in a different direction, or to stay on it and accept the consequences. 

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